This is part three of a four part series examining the various aspects of Benjamin's Haygood's 10 month educational and legal experience.
“He doesn’t have to be told, he has a warrant.” That was the response from the officer arresting then 10-year old John Benjamin Haygood at his school last year after his mother, Luanne Haygood, asked why John Benji wasn’t being told why he was being arrested. Hell, we are all still trying to figure out why he was arrested and charged with five felonies.
The warrant for John Benji was been issued in November of 2016, yet it took five months to execute. Mind you John Benji had not been in school since December 2016. His arrest appears to be one of convenience as he was at the school to participate in testing. The officer noticed John Benji as he passes the room he’s occupying and executed the warrant. In response to the outrage of the arrest, the district contended they knew nothing of the existing warrant and impending arrest. However, in a January 6, 2017 email to district officials and staff, the principal acknowledged a conversation with the school resource officer that a take and hold warrant was issued for John Benji and the department nor the school has any obligation to notify the parent. So they didn’t, and months later when John Benji made himself available, they executed it.
The SRO Role
The nature of John Benji's arrest calls into question the connection between the school resource officer and the school administration. One of the identified roles of a school resource officer is that of an informal counselor, one who is there to make connections with students, parents, and school staff. In speaking with Mo Canady, Executive Director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), this is a part of the “triad” that comprises the role of the school resource officer.
As the largest organization in the world providing training to school resource officers, NASRO has three clear components of school policing that underscore their triad roles:
The triad of roles of a school resource officer has two components that differ from street policing as we know it. In speaking with Sargeant Mark Roberts of the Okeechobee Sheriffi's department, who oversees the school resource officers, he affirmed that his officers receive training from NASRO. Although he indicated they do not do so regularly, they do however, participate in training annually from the Florida Association of School Resource Officers (FASRO).
As the supervisor of Okeechobee's school resource officer, Sgt. Roberts has advocated for more health and behavioral services for the students at Okeechobee Achievement Academy where John Benji attended. In a September 12, 2012 meeting of the Okeechobee County Juvenile Justice Council, Roberts asserted the students were are in need of additional services such as individual student counseling and family counseling'. With this level of concern for students, why such a callous approach with a 10 year old? The answer may be in the quality and focus of training.
In my discussion with Sgt. Roberts about the nature of training for Okeechobee School Resource Officers, he cited three priorities:
At the root of the contention was the assumption that street policing and school policing were the same. They are not. The variance in how these roles are defined can be measured by the requirements for training of school resource officers. Currently only 12 states require formal SRO training. This inconsistency underscores not only the perceptions about the role of the officer, but a justification for actions without uniform guidelines or standards. This type of inconsistency begs for controversy that is grounded in comfort, not quality.
Where's the Disconnect?
Disappointment is the difference between expectations and effort. That's what I heard growing up and found it to be a good yard stick in measuring outcomes. After John Benji's arrest the school district asserted it's lack of knowledge of the impending arrest. Likewise, the sheriff's department stated they were unaware of John Benji's status as a special needs student. All of this calls into question how connected these entities are in supporting the needs of students. How defined are their roles? Is there an existing memorandum of understanding between the school district and the Sheriff's office which outline expectations? How connected to the students is the of the School Resource Officer in this district? Given that the arresting officers claim unawareness of John Benji's special needs status, that's a valid question that needs to be answered.
Maryellen Quinn-Lundy, Director of the Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, in response to the question of options available to school staff including school resource officers in helping students with John Benji's identified special need, she stated, "Parents, Educators and Law Enforcement must take a proactive stance, in working with students with disabilities. Autism is a very complex disorder and requires all adults to partner and collaborate, to ensure positive outcomes for students. Schools, especially rural school districts, often have limited resources to support children with behavioral challenges." This is the same agency district officials touted as a resource to their staff, including school resource officers. in an interview a month after John Benji's arrest.
Here's the bottom line, with all of the training available to support staff and school resource officers, why do the actions and responses before, during and after John Benji's arrest not match that of the experts who can and do provide the support? According to Ms. Quinn-Lundy, "Florida is unique to other states, as Florida offers a statewide system of support for persons with autism, at no cost to the individual, school district, or law enforcement agency." Appa;rently resources aren't the problem.
This question of school resource officer roles is not new. It's a question of quality over comfort. This can be defined in the response to disappointing outcomes and evidenced by justifications after-the-fact with few qualitative standards to stand on. Doing what has always been done is 'comfort', doing what's right consistently is quality. The school to prison pipeline begins as term suggests, at school. When law enforcement becomes entangled in the processes of addressing school misconduct, the cycle flows to the courthouse and to jail. After John Benji's arrest he as taken to a detention center approximately 45 minutes away and detained overnight. The next day he was taken before a judge and arraigned. Nothing you would expect a 10 year old-autistic child to experience, but experience it he did.
Luanne Haygood, John Benji's mother, describes the long term implications of his arrest and impending trial on five felony charges.
Video Courtesy Topspin Content
Ms. Haygood's concerns are shared by many parents who struggle to understand actions that don't grow children but label them. When serving your warrant on a 10 yearl old special needs student supercedes the need to communicate and engage parents, maybe you're a little too comfortable.
This is part two of a four part series examining the various aspects of Benjamin's Haygood's 10 month educational and legal experience.
The children in our schools today will be adults a lot longer than they will be children. Every parent has expectations for their child beyond their school years, and parents of special needs children don’t lower them because of a disability. Luanne Haygood is no different in that regard. Her expectations for her now 11 year old-son, John Benji, look beyond the formative years of his life. The five felony charges John Benji is facing are a direct threat to that vision.
Video Courtesy Topspin Content
John Benjamin Haygood being charged with a felony crime was initiated by his instructional aide “…to get the ball rolling to get his mother to realize he needs additional help.” The problem is that John Benji’s mother knew he needed help, that’s why she pursued special services for her son years ago. This support is evidenced in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as well as behavioral plans equipped with strategies to guide John Benji’s progress. Like any parent, Luanne Haygood expected the school to be equipped to meet his needs. It’s called ‘accountability’.
A month after John Benji’s arrest district officials were interviewed about the challenges of meeting the needs of autistic students. Both Renee Geeting, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services and Wendy Coker, Director of Exceptional Education for Okeechobee County Public Schools, acknowledge that educating autistic students is not a ‘cookie cutter’ approach. On the surface their assertions should bring comfort and assurance that the district is on target to support the needs of their clients and their staff.
The inability to pick up on social cues, social, emotional and behavioral issues were all cited as aspects of autism that the district is prepared to address by both district representatives. The team approach is a staple of functioning in meeting the needs of special education students. From the interview with Ms. Geeting and Ms. Coker, a team equipped with all of the resources to support John Benji were available as well as the proper attitudes and understandings necessary to support a child with special needs. Why then were they not used? Typically a student in distress has a prescribed set of responses by educators to address the observed targeted behavior(s). I know of no educational plan that requires law enforcement as an intervention measure.
One of the revelations of the accountability movement was the question of capacity. Do schools have the capacity to do what they set out to do? This could include skills, knowledge, experience or resources. The answers to those questions typically lead districts in identifying the need for training or other measures to increase capacity to achieve a targeted goal. The question of capacity was raised as it relates to John Benji by his school principal, Randy Weigum.
“It would be nice to have some higher level discussions about what is this expected tolerance level from the ESE (Exceptional Student Education) department and our capacity to handle them or options beyond our services.”
-Randy Weigum, Principal
After John Benji’s suspension a manifestation determination hearing was held to determine if his behavior was related to his identified disability as is required by law. It was in fact determined to be so. The rationale to pursue charges after this finding questions not only the capacity (knowledge) of the instructional assistant but that of the leadership that did not make the connection for this employee.
In the interview with Okeechobee News, district officials acknowledged access to The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), for support and technical assistance. The irony in this is that days after John Benji’s April 2017 arrest, the executive director of CARD, Dr. Jack Scott, described the arrest as “deplorable”. Aside from his description of the incident Dr. Scott also identified the Severe Emotion Disturbance Network which is sponsored by the Florida Department of Education, as an additional technical resource to the school. Given the stated resources available to the district, one would assume alternatives to an arrest of a 10 year-old now facing five felony charges, could have been averted.
The Shell Game
The district asserts that it was the aide’s decision to pursue charges and that is evidenced in his statement given to the district attorney’s office to withdraw charges after John Benji’s actual arrest. The superintendent, Ken Kenworthy, in an April 24, 2017 email to Florida House Representative Katie Edwards, affirms, “The principal was under the impression that the charges were dropped and was equally surprised that the warrant was going to be executed that day.” That statement is only partially true. Although the district did not initiate, encourage or purse charges, they were however aware of the existing ‘take and hold’ warrant issued by the district attorney. In a January 6, 2017 email to school and district staff, the principal inquired, “…if he shows up for an eval [evaluation] then he is arrested and he still doesn’t get an eval, or is he on home base so he cannot come to school to do the evaluation[?]”. The school resource officer also informed the principal that neither he nor the schools were required to inform the parent of the existing warrant. This diminishes the claim by the district that it was unaware of an impending arrest. The school and district may not have been aware of John Benji’s actual day of arrest, but their own communication clarifies they did know that he would be, they just didn’t know when or where.
Why Are We REALLY Here?
I learned from one of my mentors, a former state superintendent, to look beyond the problem you see for its cause in order to understand and resolve it. It’s a lesson that I often have to remind myself of when faced with emotional decisions. This lesson comes with one valuable leading question, “why?”.
To answer the question of how we got here a review of the timeline of events from October 2016 through April 2017 are key. When we first heard of John Benji’s arrest it seemed to come out of nowhere. The viral video led us all to an emotional yet warranted response. It isn’t until you look further into the timeline that one begins to ask what’s really going on. Here are some key events in the timeline to examine.
These events may seem innocuous in isolation or even when streamed together. It’s not until you examine the responses of the actors in this fiasco that eyebrows are raised. The communication from both the principal and superintendent open the question of motive and intent of allowing the arrest of John Benji to come into question.
In the same January 6, 2017 email, Principal Weigum explains his conversation with the instructional aide about dropping the charges. “ He has indicated that it is not what he really wants to do but at the same time we all need to determine when enough physical abuse warrants a different form of action, especially when he in turn is accused of child abuse.” So, here’s the question, did the instructional assistant pursue charges in retaliation for being accused of child abuse? If not, why wait five days later to press charges against a 10 year-old autistic child for which the assistant is trained to engage? Did the school reach its capacity to provide services to John Benji? Did the school exhaust all available resources including technical assistance to all member of John Benji’s team to meet his identified needs?
In response to John Benji’s arrest the superintendent emailed the school board disputing John Benji’s diagnosis of autism. “Mom claims he is autistic, but the files and IEP do not support her claim.” Ms. Haygood’s ‘claim’ was and is easily verified through district documents and his medical records, which are on district letterhead. Ms. Haygood’s ‘claim’ is verified in the very first sentence in a document specifying John Benji’s educational driven status. So, why are we really here?
Luanne Haygood has expectations for John Benji beyond his schooling years. In guiding John Benji to meet those expectations she, like all parents have an expectation of the school to assist in that goal. We use the term “special needs” to children with specific learning challenges for a reason. It applies not to their condition but to the effort required to help them reach their goals.
Blaming the patient for the organization's lack of capacity to apply the appropriate treatment is not the fault of the patient, particularly when the condition isn’t self- inflicted or induced.
With all of the available resources acknowledged by and available to the district, there should have been more directed interventions beyond waiting for an arrest which they knew was coming months before. All of the semantics about the ‘charges being dropped’ don’t belie the fact that an arrest of a 10 year-old took place and the district was aware of the take and hold warrant. A now 11 year-old has been out of school for over 14 months, facing 5 felony charges. Expectations are the foundation of accountability and disappointment is a measure of effort.
This is part one of a four part series examining the various aspects of Benjamin's Haygood's 10 month educational and legal experience.
Who in the hell arrests a 10 year old autistic child and charges him with a felony? That was the question many around the nation and world were asking last April when we all became aware of who Benjamin Haygood was. Benjy, as his mother Luanne calls him, is now an 11-year old special needs student in the Okeechobee Public School System. Four of the felonies Benjy is being charged with occurred between June 5, 2015 and September 10, 2015 with the fifth incident for which he is being charged occurring on or about October 27, 2016.
Almost a year after his arrest Benjy is now facing five, YES, FIVE felony counts for “battery on school board authority.” When this incident went viral we all assumed that common sense would prevail, but OH NO, the powers that be continued to pursue the highest level of criminal charges against a special needs child without stopping to ask themselves, ‘to what end?’.
Why Were Charges Presssed?
That’s the burning question. To what end? Maybe we can find the reason in a statement by one of the staff who initially pressed charges for assault against Benjy.
“I pressed charges in order to get the ball rolling to get his mother to realize he needs additional help.”
Yes, this is the reason one of the ‘professionals’ responsible for Benjy’s care gave for pressing charges which they eventually dropped against Benjy. We’ll come back to that later. So, one has to wonder, if the charges were presumably dropped by the staff member, why then is the district attorney pursuing five felony charges against an 11 year old autistic child? According to his mother, Luanne Haygood, Benjy is scheduled to be arraigned on these 5 felony charges on March 14, 2018. Let me say it for you, WTF?!
My outrage, as should be yours is that common sense and cooler heads, we should refer to it as leadership, hasn’t stepped in. No common sense rationale has been given for the proposed benefit of pursing these charges. The state prosecutor’s rationale is that Benjy has more than 50 other incidents of physically aggressive behavior at school. Here’s my question, what role does the district attorney’s office have in assessing the school’s response to Benjy’s behavior in relation to his disability? Even if there are mechanisms in place by the courts to do so, who presented and carried out the recommendation to purse the charges as a benefit to Benjy? Are the charges designed to help Benjy, or his mother as the originator of these charges stated in their withdrawl of charges statement?
I get it. Working with a special needs student who has a propensity for aggression can be difficult, even if he is only 10 years old. Hell, I had a nine year old special needs student attempt to stab me in the neck with a pencil. Had it not been for my alert P.E. teacher, I might not be stroking these keys right now. What we didn’t do was charge him with attempted murder. We knew who we were dealing with and most importantly, WHY. We knew that the issues we were seeing in school were also occurring at home and relied on our professional obligations to help the student and parent using our professional knowledge, skills and the resources available to do our duty. We weren’t perfect, but we didn’t give up and try to ‘teach him and mom and a lesson’.
This is the gap in understanding how we got here in the first place. We know that some children come to school needing help. Some come needing a band-aid, some need stitches and some require emergency surgery. As professionals that’s the framework that good educators work in. When it comes to servicing special needs students, their disability is the basis for every effort by first acknowledging it exists and working to minimize the impact on their lives and those around them. The school’s role in addressing Benjy’s needs is not to blame the patient. It’s supposed to uphold its professional duties and reconvene to assess their current efforts to meet the needs of the student. Apparently, they seem to feel they’ve exhausted their capacities and legal action is their only recourse <Insert Side Eye here>.
In reviewing the communication between school staff and officials at Benjy’s school, it’s apparent that there was a plan in place to service Benjy. However, there seems to be an assumption that the existing plan was the correct plan. Just because you agree to it, doesn’t mean it’s the best plan. In one instance district leaders even state that Benjy’s austism was a ‘claim’ by the parent as the district had no documentation of it. One more time, WTF?!
Some of these questions may appear flippant, but frankly, when you respond to a school matter in this manner, well, the actions themselves appear to be….flippant.
So There You Are!
When Luanne Haygood took Benjy to school for testing neither of them expected the day to end with Benjy in handcuffs and Luanne driving 45 minutes to wait for Benjy to be processed by the police department, but that’s exactly what happened. The school resource officer assigned to the school became aware of Benjy’s presence and proceeded to arrest him for an outstanding warrant. The school affirms that it wasn’t aware of the impending arrest and were powerless to intervene. Are we to assume that the arrest was one of convenience? Did the officer who attends the school regularly and by their own admission had frequent contact with Benjy not consider going to the home to exercise the warrant? Maybe the department was demonstrating its efforts to save the taxpayer gas money in serving the warrant elsewhere.
This begs deeper questions about the role and responsibilities of the school resource officer in Okeechobee County. Here are a few that need to be explored; What is the role of the school resource officer as understood by the school community? Is there a memorandum of understanding about roles and responsibilities pertaining to the use of school resource officers in Okeechobee County? What is the selection process and training for school resource officers in the district? Are school resource officers trained in understanding of students with disability or even the developmental needs of adolescents and/or how brain functioning affects their development? Who supervises and evaluates the school resource officer?
School resource officers can be a tremendous asset to the school culture. However, they can also create a culture that predicates its actions on consequences and authority rather than relationship building and trust.
Another Brick In The Wall
Some of you may recall the viral case Ryan Turk. In 2016 Ryan was arrested and charged with theft of a 65 cent milk for which he was entitled to as a student who received it free. After much wrangling amongst the school district, law enforcement and the courts, cooler heads (leadership) prevailed and charges were dropped. Ryan’s case is what I consider to be a textbook case of the school-to-prison pipeline. This pattern of charging students with violations of school code of conduct range from ‘stealing free milk’ to well, arresting a special needs student for manifesting behaviors already acknowledged. Benjy’s dilemma is not one of a special needs student, but one of a special needs student in a system that consistently reacts to meet its own needs, to service itself.
Over the next week we’ll examine each aspect of this case pertaining to the actions and roles of the ‘leadership’ and actors in Benjy’s dilemma. The questions posed here serve to provoke the relevant questions that may lend some much needed answers. This issue is bigger than Benjy, it represents thousands of families and children caught in the cycle of systems service. Let’s get the ball rolling’.
What do you do when the school system ignores you? When it denies your voice? When it changes the rules while the game is being played? What if the experience with the school had your child questioning their self-worth? Ever been in a conversation that you think you’re in only to find out you were never there?
That’s the experience of Franco and Elizabeth De Liguori and their son Nick. Nick is a student in the Hillsborough County Public School system in Tampa, Florida. Hillsborough is a school system not new to conflict in servicing special needs students. Given the past history and assumption that progress had been made, the experiences of the De Liguori’s thus far have been less than…progressive.
Prior to this school year Mr. & Mrs. De Liguori would not have anticipated their 13 year old son, Nick, planning his educational goals. However, this is exactly what he did. As the school year began Nick was hopeful and optimistic about not only his future, but the fact that he was taking ownership of it and having input.
Nick is a special needs student by definition. I deem it important to note as there is a difference in how Nick views his abilities and how he perceives the ‘system’ in viewing them. In speaking with Nick about his goals he was very clear. “I want to be in classes with other students. Right now I’m really bored and I want to be able to focus on classes and making new friends. I can’t do that where I am.” When the school year began Nick and his parents were both highly optimistic about the possibilities for him. “We build expectations every single day, it is hard to look too far into the future because the today needs and challenges are too great but our final goal is to have Nick as a member of the community/society who is respected and independent”, Mrs. De Liguori clarified.
Nick followed through on his promise and earned honor roll for the first time as well as being acknowledged for his good conduct. You would think that this would be the beginning of a positive end and an example of how schools and parents come together to build on a child’s strengths. It hasn’t been that, not at all. What is has been is typical. Nick and his parents were asking for the school to develop a plan of inclusion or mainstreaming. This involves developing strategies to create opportunities for special needs students to learn alongside their non-disabled peers. This is a troubled journey that many parents of special needs students find the most challenging.
The Illusion of Inclusion
The school year began with promises of hope for Nick and was espoused by the school district in terms of ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’. Mrs. De Liguori said of her expectations, “We were expecting goals that focus on his weaknesses and would support his integration into the class. [We expected] social goals to interact in a meaningful way with typical peers and academic goals to help him succeed and learn in a more challenging environment”. After four months of meetings, ignored letters and emails at every level of the school system, the De Liguori’s were informed by Nick that he had started his mainstreamed class, yet the parents had not heard a word from the district confirming anything.
The reasons for non-responsiveness were ignored even when asked directly by the parents. An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting is intended to be collaboration between parents and the school in developing strategies for the student. What has become a staple of these meetings is a process called the Delphi Technique. Although intended to help facilitate the meeting and get everyone’s opinion, it too can and has been used to steer conversations and limit the voices of parents. This is the illusion of inclusion. When parents talk their voices can be stifled by the ‘team’ or facilitator who sets the agenda and in many cases creates the narratives. The experience of the De Liguori’s has been consistent with those criticisms. “[There was] lack of understanding of Nick's disability, lack of expertise, no accountability when plans has been agreed with parents, denial of school personnel about the real issues with Nick and specially the stubbornness position of the school to place him into a setting that is convenient for the school with no consideration of Nick's very unique needs”, said Mrs. De Liguori.
Throughout the four month process the De Liguori’s endured three different facilitators and inconsistent attendance of the professionals connected to Nick’s plan. Needless to say, not only did the agenda change with each meeting, so did the narratives. At some point the De Liguori’s began to see the disconnect, not only from them as parents, but internally between the district and school staff. “The opinions [and] positions of the staff that works with the student on a day to day basis are not considered if it is in opposition of the special education administration. There is a total disconnect and ambiguity between these two parties. Services and plans remain a paper document and it is not translated into real services for the student. The administration has a continuous negative attitude against parents and uses techniques to intimidate and/or discriminate against parents that passionately advocate for their kids”, said Mrs. De Liguori.
Since the four month delay in a plan initiated by the motivation of a 13 year old special needs student, the breakdowns in formulating sound support have resulted in a de-motivated student who is not trusting of the adults responsible for his learning. When I asked the De Liguori’s about Nick’s current state of mind regarding school, they shared that “Nick's anxiety and emotional state has been severely affected by the situation, he feels frustrated, scared and sees himself like not having other options. He has manifested that "he doesn't want to be on this world" and that all his options are closed. We have never seen him with this level of anxiety before. The whole family dynamic is affected for that situation, work cannot be done and for that reason we have been impacted financially. His siblings feel scared and traumatized and are even afraid to have friends coming over the house because they don't know how Nick is going to react. They feel like the whole family gravitates around his current situation and we cannot have a more balanced normal life.”
Systems Drive Success or Failure
When the accountability movement began in the late ‘90’s, the term ‘accountability’ became a new addition to” educationese” jargon. It wasn’t intended to devolve to a six syllable word that is used to present intentions, but to align words with actions. True accountability has a system to it. It is able to demonstrate repeatedly what it can produce. Every school has a system, a process or method for achieving results. Some are good, some not so good, and some are just awful. What they have in common is, they are representative of the way people work, their system.
The issue of systemic failures is not isolated to Hillsborough County Public Schools. Currently the Department of Education is undertaking 23 investigations into alleged civil rights violations in the Salt Lake City School District. The investigation into these violations includes discrimination on the basis of disability, sex or race. Several of these cases were brought forth by Michael Clara, a former member of the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education. Clara acknowledges the power of a system to limit progress for students and families.
“The more closed [the system] is, the more they’re able to get away with,” Clara said. “If you take away transparency from a government agency then there’s no accountability because there’s nobody there to question anything.”
Special education is no different than any other aspect of the educational environment in terms of accountability. The exception is that it requires more collaboration, more transparency and a system that proves it is meeting the needs of the children. A good ‘system’ bases its accountability on how it builds on the strengths of the children it serves, not their disabilities. The experiences of the De Liguori’s expose a ‘system’ of compliance. These types of systems rely heavily on processes to facilitate their system and fit the child in where it works. It is the essence of not only limiting the capacity of the child, but those that serve in the system. The problem with fixing such a pattern is getting the people who operate it to acknowledge what they ‘think’ is working, is only working for them. The end result is that you’re addressing a system solely, but a culture.
Being up close and connected to Nick’s plight, it wasn’t a far stretch for me to wonder if their experience was an isolated one. Being one of the largest school districts in the nation, it serves a large spectrum of students across all socio-economic groups and demographics. Yet in focusing on special needs students, the questions begs itself, how many parents of special needs children have a similar story to tell? How many students are being moved beyond their disabilities in preparation for life beyond public schooling? What evidence is there beyond “intentions” and mission statements of that effort?
In education circles where accountability is high, good educators go out of their way to set goals for special needs children that look beyond their identified disability. Over the past several years the issues around public school meeting the needs of special education students has seen an increase in home schooling. Aside from citing the inability of the schools to meet the needs of their child, the underlying theme is low expectations. This is evidenced in the low level of inclusion, mainstreaming and other inclusive strategies that grow children towards their future. Educators who practice this create cultures of progress. These educators know that whatever the disability, their goal is to minimize it and help that student develop skills and strategies to build on their strengths, not their weaknesses. These educators recognize the “warehousing” of special needs students as a practice and work to combat it. It is reflected in dialogue and actions that consistently focus on the limitations of the student and evoke their voice to change it. Good schools don’t grow special needs students or limit their growth. They move them beyond their identified barriers.
All systems produce patterns, and systems built on accountability learn from them. In reviewing the parameters and history of Hillsborough County Public Schools, the case of Whitehead v. Hillsborough School Board, it was hard to not see consistencies from 1998 to now. Often times delaying a response, as in the De Liguori case is a frustrating process for parents and unfortunately a method for some schools to avoid the level of accountability that the public assumes they are providing. In response to the complaints of parents of special needs students about delays as a tactic in providing services, the U.S. Department of education felt it necessary to issue a memo to all State Directors of Special Education to address this pattern.
State of Mind
Since the beginning of September I have been connected to the De Liguori’s and Nick’s journey. I have seen firsthand their frustrations and share them. Having supervised special education departments for over twenty years, it doesn’t take long to determine the intent and capacities of a system. One only has to look at the patterns. I asked the De Liguori’s to share any lessons they may have learned that parents in similar situation could benefit from, “Everything needs to be documented, and every plan needs to have a deadline and a person accountable. Do not trust the school, follow up and supervise every little service/plan written on his IEP. Do not accept no for an answer, do not believe their arguments unless they can prove it, and support the "boots on the ground."
“I need to get out of here before I hurt someone. I’m not kidding. I’m telling you man, for real, I can’t keep it together and somebody is going to get hurt.” These are the words you want to hear from a student. These words can save his life and those of his classmates and teachers.
Those words were spoken to me by a student three weeks before he came to school to commit suicide. I sat with him on the day he spoke it, ate lunch together and talked it out. I stayed in touch with him over the weekend and thought things were, well, stable. Yet three weeks later I received a call from the shelter where he was staying to tell me he was coming to school to commit suicide. After hours of searching for him, he arrived at school distressed.
Gun laws are not the sole problem. They are a tool used to exercise the pain these young people are experiencing. Some act out with verbal emotion, detachment, self-isolation or other coping mechanisms. This is the sole difference between those who take the lives of others and themselves and those who don’t. The young man who came to me expressing his desire to hurt someone was not violent by nature. He was hurt. He was homeless. Homeless because he didn’t feel loved or cared for. On the morning he came to school to kill himself, he told the director of the homeless shelter of his plans. He came to kill himself at school because he knew he would be heard. He knew there would be a response to his words. That response would not be words, but action. An action he could feel, an action that would demonstrate that he was relevant and important to someone other than himself. The choice to use a gun is a manifestation of how deep the pain is. It suggests a powerful need to show everyone how hurt they are. If this young man were labeled on the day he told me he wanted to hurt someone and was suspended because of a perceived threat rather than a cry for help, would he have acted out on those feelings?
We have to look no further than the inaction of a system that claims to protect our children. We were able to get him help and today he is a thriving, productive young man.
Guns, drugs, gangs and any other rationale for the behaviors we attribute to the violence of youth is a manifestation of the absence of something. Something we continue to ignore because we don’t want to look at their pain. We don’t look because we are the solution and possible cause of it. We are the adults, we are the parents, the community, the police and policy makers. We spend millions on resources creating solutions for adults. The adults who have lost their focus on the future which is embodied in our youth, not technology or the growth of our economy. These are manifestations of how we support our future, which is our youth.
Pain, suffering and a search for identify is what is overlooked when we conduct our autopsies after school shootings. After the cycle of outrage, thoughts and prayers, silence and another shooting, we consistently fail to examine the root elements of the problem, the social and emotional needs of our youth. Notice I didn’t label it a ‘cause’ of the problem, but an element of the problem. We have continually attempted to label the shooters and deploy strategies such as zero tolerance policies that do not address the social and emotional needs of the people we purport to help. This is a cycle of adult thinking absent of any acknowledgement of the needs of our youth.
Seventeen souls were lost in a continuing dynamic that moves further away from the key element in this discussion. These lost but not forgotten souls are added to the list of senseless violence that has been courted by not addressing the issue at its elemental level. There is no singular reason for the pattern of school violence that takes lives except that we have not looked at it through the lens of those experiencing it. Bullying, isolation, depression, and a general need to establish a positive presence and identity among peers are all factors that our young people are working through as a part of their normal development. Policies may make the public feel as though they responded to the needs of our children, but practices will have a more personal a direct impact on their needs. The practices that result in our current policies have not addressed their needs, but those of adults.
Policies keep us above the conversation. It keeps us from connecting with the voices that are seeking to be heard. It makes the adults in the room feel satisfied that they did something, but has it changed things for the better?
The Columbine school shooting in 1999 brought forth zero tolerance policies. They labeled behavior and thusly students. The assumption was that by eliminating students from the school environment that exhibited the potential for violence would make everyone safe. Nikolas Cruz, a young man with a very troubled past who had been expelled from the school is evidence this policy can’t protect others from real pain. After Columbine the FBI assisted schools in establishing a tiered threat assessments for students who may be prone to acts of violence. In their effort it was acknowledged there was no way to profile such a student as actual shooters exhibit behaviors of many of their students. What should we have learned from that statement?
We need to respond rather than react to what we see and hear. The response should be driven by the voices of those who are at risk and this includes the potential shooters. The response shouldn’t be a new policy, but new practices which should not only show evidence of hearing the issues of young people, from young people, but include structures in our educational system that demonstrate that their words and needs were heard. If you have any experience with young people one should know that you can’t hold them accountable to what you think. They respond better when we build systems that support their needs, that’s how they learn accountability for themselves and others.
The seventh grader who shot himself this week is painful. It’s painful to know that a young person is in so much pain that they would come to school to end their life. At this point we don’t know his mind, his struggle nor the source of his pain. What we do know is that it was deep enough to want to end his life. School shooters like suicide victims give signs or hints of their intent. What were the signs of this young man? Who did he tell? What would have been the outcome if someone listened?
If the pattern of response to these violent events is consistent, there will be an examination into his life and another profile created. The problem is, he fits the profile of many of his classmates in his school and around the country. Until we acknowledge that we have not addressed the problem, yet reacted to it, we will continue to fail. We will continue to conduct public autopsies as the body count in our communities rise. We have to look deeper inside ourselves and more importantly our children. Prayer without works is dead.